Best portable music and MP3 players Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best MP3 players you can buy in 2023.
Whether you want to save your phone's memory (and battery) or need your on-the-go sound to be as good as it can possibly be, look no further than our pick of the best MP3 players on the planet.
Despite the demise of the iPod (Apple waved goodbye to the last remaining model in May), the music player market still has some top brands in it. We have rounded up the best MP3 players across a range of prices, from budget Cowons right through to higher-end Astell & Kerns...
How to choose the best portable MP3 player for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.
Whatever your budget, you will be surprised at what you can get for your money these days. Every player here supports MP3 and AAC files of course, but we can all do better than that in 2023. All of the models below also support hi-res files (such as DSD, FLAC and PCM files), with some also adding native MQA playback to that compatibility list, so you can listen to hi-res Tidal Masters through compatible players and play back downloaded MQA music in the best sound quality possible.
Have an extensive digital music collection? Many of these MP3 players have microSD memory slots, so your assembled throng of tracks and artists need never stop growing. Expandable memory also means you can keep all of your music at the highest quality possible, without worrying about those large file sizes taking up all of your player's storage space.
There are even MP3 players here that can double up as a DAC to enhance the sound between your smartphone/laptop and headphones/speakers. Some have built-in access to streaming services, too, while others have even more functionality that mirrors a phone's.
But all of the products in this list share one thing: excellent sound quality. And if you're here, that is probably important to you. So, let's find you a player you will be happy with...
- High-resolution audio: everything you need to know
- MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC: all the audio file formats explained
The Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII is the latest in what has been a long line of excellent, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning, ‘entry-level’ portable music players. And each new generation invariably proves more talented than the last.
The SR25 MKII doesn’t let us down, propelling its lineage forward from the 2018-introduced A&norma SR15 (also in this list) to set a new performance benchmark. Last year, it was a What Hi-Fi? 2021 Award-winner, and this year, it took the best portable music player over $1000 What Hi-Fi? 2022 Award.
Notably more expressive and eloquent than any other portable music player we have encountered at this price, and far beyond anything that smartphones are capable of, the SR25 MKII demonstrates just how good music on the move can sound, while also remaining reasonably affordable. And we stress the word 'reasonably': because while it pushes performance forward, it also pushes what is acceptable as an entry-level price.
Still, if your budget can stretch to it, this is a truly stunning player with superb build quality to match.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR25 MKII
How about a customisable PMP with interchangeable DAC modules? That's the idea here – and we liked it so much, we gave it What Hi-Fi? 2021 and 2022 Awards. The new SE180 is the third model in Astell & Kern’s near-flagship A&futura range, following the inaugural SE100 and SE200, both of which gained Awards from this very publication in 2019 and 2020 respectively (and are listed below).
To personally tailor your sound, the SE180 goes one step further than the slightly older SE200 (which has two user-selectable DAC configurations built into the player) in that it features an interchangeable DAC module design. The concept: Astell & Kern releases a series of DAC modules, all with different sonic characters, so that owners can purchase them and swap them in over the standard supplied module, if they so wish.
Of course, these can be considered optional extras; experimental paths that can be taken or completely ignored. After all, the SE180 is an all-in-one player in itself, with the default module containing the ESS ES9038PRO DAC. It supports 32-bit/384kHz PCM, native DSD256 and MQA audio and has 2.5mm, 3.5mm and 4.4mm outputs to cater for a wide range of headphones.
With built-in wi-fi as well as direct access to streaming service apps in its menu, the SE180 doesn’t make hard work of your music however you would like to play it. Whether you consider the modular design valuable or not, even straight from the box, the SE180 is one of the best performance-per-pound offerings in the company’s line-up.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&futura SE180
The Kann Alpha is the third player in the Kann series, yet the first Astell & Kern player to implement Bluetooth 5.0 (complete with aptX HD). It boasts a more powerful built-in headphone amplifier than the previous Kann series players it succeeds, too. And thanks to the rearrangement of various components and the use of smaller resistors and capacitors, it promises added power in a smaller and more portable chassis.
It's still slightly bulky but will fit in a coat pocket and supports most music file formats, including MQA, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and native DSD256. It's similarly wide-ranging when it comes to wireless codec support (LDAC, aptX HD, aptX, AAC and, naturally, SBC Bluetooth). The Alpha also supports MQA-CD playback, by way of Astell & Kern’s CD-Ripper. There's 24-bit and DSD file compatibility; three headphone outputs (2.5mm and a new balanced 4.4mm, plus a 3.5mm unbalanced headphone jack/optical); a microSD card slot to expand the 64GB of onboard storage; and support for 33 music streaming services over wi-fi (although these are a little hit and miss to implement).
The biggest selling point? Sound quality. We cannot fault its sonic chops. The Alpha is as meticulous and honest as it is zealous, with an expansive presentation, punchy bass and good levels of detail. Fundamentally, players such as this must deliver hi-res music in a portable design – and it delivers this in spades. Live recordings are leant a degree of spaciousness and realism rarely heard.
Read the full Astell & Kern Kann Alpha review
Our 2019 Product of the Year Award winner is still one of the best portable music players at around this price bracket a few years on. The Astell & Kern A&norma SR15 is the predecessor to the A&norma SR25 MKII that sits at the top of this list (which means it can currently be picked up at a tasty discount.)
Boasting an easy-to-use interface, stacks of storage and plenty of hi-res file support – not to mention serious levels of detail and a dynamic sound that's synonymous with the brand – it promises a severe step up from your smartphone sound.
The device can also be used as a DAC/preamp, allowing you to use it to enhance the performance of your smartphone and/or laptop.
Hurry while end of stocks last!
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&norma SR15
Arguably the ultimate high-resolution portable music player in this price bracket, the Kann's solid build combines with impressive battery life and a long list of features.
There are both unbalanced (3.5mm) and balanced (2.5mm) outputs, aptX Bluetooth for wireless streaming at better-than-CD quality, and native support for 32bit/384kHz and DSD256 files.
As for the performance, there’s lashings of depth, detail, and dynamism that will make you reluctant to take off your headphones. It keep instruments precisely organised in a spacious presentation, while bass drums are conveyed with tenacity and force – the Kann digs down into the lower frequencies and presents them with a good deal of thump so you get a clear indication of the drummer’s force.
Even when fed lower-resolution tracks via streaming services, the Kann maintains its character. While there is an expected drop in detail, it’s still punchy and fun. If you want to show off how impressive good hi-fi can be, it’s not compulsory to buy more hi-res files.
Admittedly the aesthetics might raise a few eyebrows – and the newer Kann Alpha is a slightly more svelte model. But make no mistake, this is a talented machine you will struggle to put down.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern Kann
Not many portable music players will find common ground with the SP2000 – and that goes for price, build and performance. This is a one-of-a-kind player, which is as impractically portable as it is inaccessibly priced.
If it were a car, it would be a Bentley Arnage – a luxurious ride for special occasions, rather than something to use for the weekly shop.
As a high-end music player – both as a straight-up PMP in a desirable headphones set-up and as a streaming-capable source for your speaker-led hi-fi – the A&ultima SP2000 is the sort of musical and multi-talented device that is otherwise hard to come by.
Its neutral balance opts for refinement and sophistication over outright liveliness, but that’s no criticism. This is a subtle presentation, rather than a barnstormer, which befits its high-end price tag. Forgive its weight and average battery life, and you won’t be sorry you chose this fantastic-sounding device.
Read the full review: Astell & Kern A&ultima SP2000
How we test portable music players
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers tests the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door, including the higher-end portable music players that might well be used in a portable hi-fi or desktop scenario.
These music players are placed in our pockets during the review period too, of course, so we can gauge how portable and easy to use on the fly they really are.
Most important in our reviewing process is that each product is compared with the best in its price and class. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we keep our Award winners nearby to enable comparisons between new products and ones we know perform highly in the category.
We are always impartial and do our utmost to make sure we are hearing every product at its very best, so we try plenty of different types of music and give each plenty of listening time (and time to run in). We use a range of headphones at levels likely to suit a certain player, too.
It's not just about sound quality, of course. If a product has noteworthy features – such as a battery life, built-in streaming services and DAC-performing abilities, in the case of portable music players – we always ensure part of our testing involves testing the claims made by its makers.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the entire team, rather than an individual reviewer, to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we are being as thorough as possible. There is no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict. At What Hi-Fi?, we are proud to deliver honest, unbiased reviews – something we have been doing consistently for more than 45 years.
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